Thursday, November 8, 2007

Sher View: The General Totters

Being in the boots of General Pervez Musharraf is not one of the things many Pakistanis would desire, particularly right at this moment as he implements the suspension of the Constitution and imposes total military rule -- against the warning of the Bush Administration -- in one of America's longtime allies in the volatile South Asia region.

Faced with a possible Supreme Court judgment that would have gone against his Presidency, a controversial deal with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the bundling off of another former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the rising pressure of militants in his own backyard, clearly General Musharraf was and is a cornered man.

For the past year or so the military strongman clearly lost his touch, if not the political momentum: his handling of the firing of the Supreme Court Chief Justice and storming of the Lal (Red) Mosque barely 200 meters from the Military Intelligence Headquarters were more than mere embarrassments; they showed that the General did have a conspicuous chink in his armor.

While he tried a political foxtrot in the last few months favoring Benazir Bhutto to return in exchange for an amnesty on possible convictions against her on corruption charges -- presumably with an understanding from Ms. Bhutto that the General would remain as the President -- it was becoming clear that the General was not politically savvy about what he was getting himself into. His handling of sending Nawaz Sharif back into political exile in Saudi Arabia -- the country that had guaranteed Mr. Sharif not returning to Pakistan for at least ten years -- clearly showed that the General was picking his favorites among which political opponents would be permitted to come back home from abroad..

What happens next?

The Bush Administration -- which gave Pakistan more than $10 billion, mostly in military aid, since General Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 -- is scarcely pleased with what the General has donem It is more likely that the Europeans will take economically effective steps against Pakistan’s regime. The Americans will have to balance things given that Musharraf will use the martial law as the necessary weapon he needs to go after the militants of Al Qaeda and Taliban. With press freedoms curtailed or restricted, and military force rather than para-military rangers fighting the militants, his bet will be for quick results if Mr. Musharraf wants some semblance of acceptability in the White House again..

While it is possible that there will be mass political rallies against him in Pakistan -- a land of 177 million Muslims of many persuasions -- it is highly unlikely that General Musharraf and his generals will be as tolerant of street demonstrations as they were during the uproar over the Supreme Court Chief Justice's firing. Benazir Bhutto will perhaps come out of this politically for the worse, finding her deal with the General scuttled. And even though she was acquiring some kudos for speaking out against terrorism after the attack on her convoy upon her return to Pakistan from her exile in Dubai,, she will be hard pressed to prove that democracy was really her sole motive for returning to Pakistan.

The martial law and the General’s sudden about-face actually will favor Nawaz Sharif, who in exile with the Saudis as their "guest," is going to gain the most from this turn of events. It will help him all the more since it seems that the United States had pressed both the General and Benazir Bhutto to come to some understanding; I am told reliably that some American officials urged Musharraf not to undertake any discussions with Nawaz Sharif.

In the street politics of Pakistan this is a huge dividend that Mr. Sharif can encash as and when he wants.

It is possible that General Musharraf acted to pre-empt any dissension within the army ranks. With the November 15th court judgment expected against General Musharraf's presidential election, it is possible his generals were getting uncomfortable about his personalization of the political challenges before the country.

It would well be that the martial law might have staved off any possible attempts by nationalist inspired Generals within the army. One of the most difficult aspects to fathom will be the reaction of the command line generals who have not always felt comfortable with performing martial law duties. Even though since the times of General Zia ul Haq -- one of Mr. Musharraf's predecessors as army chief and president-by-coup -- the army was highly politicized, it cannot be guaranteed that these generals will follow the edict of a President and Chief of Army Staff who seems to be battling more for his life than for his country.

For Pakistan and the region this is a precarious and fragile moment, and martial laws may not be the solution. While dealing with the militants may seem easier by comparison, there is no doubt that the political drama that is unfolding will not end so easily.

General Musharraf has merely written out the first act of a drama the Pakistani public is well versed in, but as with all such dramas the audience has no loyalties. Sadly enough, with Ms. Bhutto'’s political juggling and Mr. Sharif fuming in Saudi Arabia as a "guest," the chances are that General Musharraf will have to have a head-on clash with political forces within the country and most likely within the army.

Only the next few weeks will tell us if the General has truly tottered and fallen. Until then, this past weekend's troubling developments will remain a precarious tangle in Pakistan’s sad political history of military meddling, Islamist maneuverings, and the shredding of the social order.

America may well lose a key ally in the region in its war against global terrorism. It is difficult not to despair about Pakistan's prospects. It is even more difficult bot to despair over the incipient possibility that America's enormous economic, military and political investment in Pakistan may well have been for nought.

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